Do you have built up resentment or anger – not towards someone else, but towards yourself? If you are human, then you have made a mistake, taken a misstep, committed a misdeed. Do you continue to beat yourself up for losing your temper at work, yelling at your child in anger, cheating on your spouse? Like countless others, it may be easier for you to forgive someone else than to forgive yourself. Yet, failing to forgive yourself makes you vulnerable to chronic stress (a major contributor to cancer, heart disease and various autoimmune disorders), self-destructive behaviors (eating disorders, substance abuse and other addictions, self-sabotage), and chronic depression and anxiety. If self-forgiveness is so necessary for physical and mental well-being, why is it so hard to put into practice?
Perhaps the single most destructive assumption that keeps people stuck is the mistaken belief that they need to be perfect. Even if you understand intellectually that “to err is human,” when your behavior fails to match the ideal template you hold for yourself, you suffer enormously. No one can beat you up better than you can! Holding yourself to the impossible standard of perfection or to a relentless struggle to be “ideal” invariably places you on a downward spiral.
Often, people fear that if they let go of their high standards, they will fall prey to irresponsibility, indifference and callousness. Do you continue to beat yourself up because to do otherwise feels like you are letting yourself off the hook? Remember, to forgive yourself does NOT mean:
- you should forget what you did.
- you condone your behavior.
- you aren’t responsible for your actions.
On the contrary, the practice of self-forgiveness requires four guiding principles:
A commitment to learn from your mistake.
Take out a piece of paper and write down the mistake, misdeed or misstep that is causing you pain and anguish. Describe it in detail. Don’t hold anything back. Now, reflect on this experience and write down all the things you have learned. To help you get started, here are some questions to ponder: What drove me to take this action in the first place? What conditions contributed to my mistake? What were my behaviors that contributed to someone else’s pain or hurt?
A plan to prevent repetition of the mistake.
Self-forgiveness rests on the realization that in hindsight you might have done something differently. Holding yourself accountable requires that you have enough insight and self-control not to make the same mistake twice. To ensure that you make a different choice next time, it is helpful to replay the scenario with a different outcome. Describe in detail what you would do to prevent that same mistake from happening again.
An action to make amends.
Depending on the situation, self-forgiveness may also require asking the wronged person to forgive you as well. This is what is referred to in 12-step programs as “making amends.” Admit that you made a mistake, apologize for your actions, explain why it won’t happen again. Be willing to listen to the other person’s hurt and to take corrective action. If disclosure would harm the other person, you can make amends indirectly through corrective action or prayer, for example.
An understanding that you have grown from the experience.
Practicing self-forgiveness recognizes you can grow from your mistakes as much as your successes. You know that perfection is impossible. You know you deserve understanding, compassion and forgiveness. You accept and love yourself as a fallible human being. You recognize that you did the best you could knowing what you did at the time. You appreciate your growth and remember that you are now able to make better choices that will lead to different outcomes.
Forgiveness is a powerful tool for personal growth and positive change – whether you are forgiving another person for past transgressions or forgiving yourself for wrongdoings. In the words of Mark Twain: “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.”